An annual list of holiday films is a challenging endeavor once you’ve been at it for a while. I mean, sensibilities change slightly from year to year, but not enough to warrant developing a list that is nearly identical to the year’s previous list. Therefore, I have invented a gimmick to allow me to publish an annual holiday film list that is different enough from year to year and also will not damage my journalistic integrity by contradicting original recommendations. If you want to know my quintessential thoughts on the best overall holiday films, please see my 2014 list or my 2015 list.
So what’s the gimmick? Holiday films are themselves a subgenre of the various classic genres of film. In other words, we have holiday comedies, horrors, dramas, classics, tragedies, etc. Therefore, my intention is to offer a list of the best holiday films of a specific genre each year. 2016, for better or for worse, may go down as one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory. While “Tumult” is not a generally accepted genre, Action/Adventure certainly is. Therefore, this year the list is getting an action overhaul to reveal The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Holiday Action films of all time!
Reindeer Games – John Frankenheimer’s final film, Reindeer Games, does not generally enter the discussion as one of the director’s best efforts. However, when previous films include, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, and The French Connection…II (still pretty good though), you buy a little favor as you enter your final act. Reindeer Games does not find its way onto many top 10 lists, so I am honored to have crafted one that it most certainly (just barely) belongs on. Admittedly not a problem free film, Reindeer Games finds Ben Affleck coerced to assist in a Christmas Eve casino heist by Charlize Theron and her brother Gary Sinise.
Lethal Weapon – Nothing says, have a holly, jolly Christmas like Mel Gibson, right? Well, the boys may be “getting too old for this shit” now, after four films and a television series, but back in 1987, the buddy duo of Murtaugh and Riggs was a new thing. Right from the start when a naked hooker swan dives out of a hotel room window to her death to the song, “Jingle Bells,” this film has the holiday spirit! A coke bust in a Christmas tree lot is just the icing on the cake. This film is a blast though. While the mismatch, buddy-cops does feel cliché now, this was the film that really put that formula on the map.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Not only the best Bond movie, but Diana Rigg is hands down the best Bond girl as well! George Lazenby’s sole entry as Bond sees 007 off to Switzerland in pursuit of that nasty Blofeld who threatens to release a lethal virus upon the world unless he receives a pardon for all of his previous crimes (perhaps this film would have been more aptly named, ‘Lethal Weapon’ than #9). The film is set around the holidays. They don’t play a major role, but there is a lot of snow everywhere, some dangerous Christmas gifts, and perhaps the worst Christmas song you’ve ever heard.
Iron Man 3 – Occasionally I hear people ask, why hasn’t Marvel made a Christmas movie yet? Well, guess what? They did, and it was Iron Man 3. Sure it was released in the month of May, but this one truly has a May/December relationship. The holidays play a pivotal role here, whether it’s a scene at a 1999 New Years Eve party or a scene where Tony Stark tests out his new Iron Man suit to a funky rendition of “Jingle Bells” – the holiday spirit is there. Iron Man 3 is a very smartly made film, and while it still addresses comic book staple themes like good/evil, identity, revenge, and freedom, an emergent theme can also be extracted from it – learning from mistakes. This installment is Downey Jr.’s best as he tactfully and authentically balances humor, intensity, and sentimentality without ever missing a beat.
Batman Returns – A Tim Burton Christmas is always a good time. Add Batman and you have something really special. Megalomaniac and billionaire (sound eerily familiar?) Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) and Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) join forces in corrupt quest to take control of Gotham City. Another moody masterpiece from Burton using the holiday backdrop as a stark contrast to create a macabre, surreal experience for the viewer. Christmas imagery is turned on its head where ornaments and even trees are charismatic weaponry, rather than fun decorations.
Rocky IV – Granted, this film probably has the least to do with the holidays than any of the others on this list. Still the climactic fight happens to be on Christmas, which qualifies it for the list. This is pure guilty pleasure watching as all of the tropes of the fighting genre are on full display. The epic battle between underdog Balboa and the superhuman Draggo (played by Dolph Lundgren) is worth the set-up though.
Gremlins – “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.” These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas! In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls. This film dances the line between horror/action and comedy with great results.
Prisoners – Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a construction worker who lives in a quiet New England suburb with his wife, teenage son, and six year old daughter. While spending Thanksgiving with the family of his life-long friend and neighbor, Franklin Birch (Terrance Howard), Keller and Franklin discover that both of their daughters are suddenly missing. With the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the police, they are able to track down the RV and apprehend a suspect (Paul Dano), but due to his mental incapacity and lack of evidence, he is released. This sends Prisoners in a harrowing new direction as Keller and Franklin wade through some ethically murky waters in the search for their daughters. This is an intense one, and while not a traditional holiday film nor a traditional action film, it has both and is outstanding!
Jurassic World – How will you spend your Christmas vacation? Why not at the same Costa Rican island where just 22 years prior, dinosaurs ran wild killing everyone in their path? That’s the premise of this blockbuster sequel whose cold-blooded characters heighten our warm blooded heartrates with more action and more “chaos.” Grab a cup of cocoa and hitch a ride on a raptor for this year’s number two holiday action film!
Die Hard – Perhaps the film that made the holiday action film subgenre possible, Die Hard is a classic. That nasty Hans Gruber (played expertly by the great Alan Rickman, whom we lost earlier this year) takes control of the very office building where NYC cop John McClane’s wife, Holly, works. With all of the building inhabitants except John McClane now held hostage by Gruber and his band of terrorists, McClane finds himself the only one who can save Christmas…and the lives of his wife and her coworkers! Rickman makes “snarky, German terrorist” an art form and the action and the tone in this film are perfect. There’s just no topping this one.
What do you think? Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film? Let me know!
Christopher Walken is one of the most interesting actors working today. His career, like his reputation, is strange and unusual. The 1978 Best Supporting Actor winner is also in the 2003 Worst Picture Winner (according to me) Kangaroo Jack. The thing is, Walken’s scene in that “film” is easily the best part, and that same thing can be said for every film in which he appears. Regardless of the film’s success, having Walken in your movie makes it better every time. Take Poolhall Junkies for example. I imagine you have not seen Poolhall Junkies, but watch this scene where Christopher Walken approaches Johnny (Mars Callahan)in a men’s room. Tell me that you don’t want to see more of this movie! In fact, tell me that you don’t want to memorize that speech and recite it to a random stranger in a men’s room some day! The thing is, this is the best part of Poolhall Junkies, but it makes me like the entire movie so much more knowing that this scene exists! Those who know me, know I have been a die-hard Christopher Walken fan my entire life. His dead-eye stare as Diane Keaton’s brother Dwayne in Annie Hall explaining his “dark secret” to Woody Allen was probably the scene that started my fandom and I’ve been a loyal Walken-lover ever since. Therefore, as the actor begins his 73rd year of life on this planet and releases his 128throle in television and film as the voice of King Louie in Disney’s the Jungle Book, I decided to put a little list of the top 10 Walken performances of all time. While most of the films on this list, bill Walken as the star or costar, a few are of the Poolhall Junkies variety where his appearance is brief but brilliant.
- Annie Hall – As I mentioned in my introduction, Walken’s role in Annie Hall is probably the one that started my interest in the actor. Woody Allen is one of my cinematic heroes and it’s fitting to have one hero sort of discover another one. I actually have a copy of the original script for this scene. It was given to me by a relative who worked on the film and has official hand written notes in the margin. Obviously, the list of reasons Annie Hall is a successful film is long, and Walken’s scene is probably on the bottom of that list. Still, this is a great example of Walken’s ability to put a big stamp on a movie with minimal screen time.
- A View to a Kill – In the 80s, Walken got somewhat typecast as a villainous and scary character. One of the best things you can do as an actor when this happens is score a role as a Bond villain, and that’s exactly what happened in 1985 when Walken was cast as mad industrialist Max Zorin in the 14th film in the franchise, A View to a Kill. Walken was actually the first Oscar winner to play a Bond villain, and basically paved the way for the latest Bond villain portrayal by an Oscar winner – typecast, villainous and scary guy, Cristoph Waltz from 2015’s Spectre. Walken chews the scenery with the best of them as Zorin. Again the hair and the stare are key elements of a good Walken role. Watch him “negotiate” aboard his Skyship and you’ll see what I mean.
- Dead Zone – Speaking of creepy characters from the 80s, Walken’s portrayal of Johnny Smith in the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone fits that description too! Walken is perfect for the role as the ominous clairvoyant who through just a momentary touch receives a vision of how others will perish. This film was also the impetus for one of his first classic Saturday Night Live bits, “Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.”
- Seven Psychopaths – Seven Psychopaths is a dark comedy from Martin McDonagh who like Tarantino or Hitchcock likes to explore similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens in order to analyze humanity. Walken’s character Hans is one of the more relaxed psychopaths of this film about an alcoholic screenwriter who is trying to write a long overdue screenplay. Walken basically does a Walken impression here, which is what people have come to want from him in this later phase of his career. The good news is that like the title suggests, no character is quite what he seems on the surface and Walken is no exception.
6. King of New York – Perhaps Walken’s darkest and most sinister character to date comes in the form of Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. You’ll notice a bevy of familiar faces in this 1990 crime thriller including Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve Buscemi. This is a brutal gangster movie that delivers no warm, fuzzy feelings whatsoever. Walken is menacing as the crime-lord Cross who after doing his stint in prison is determined to rebuild his criminal empire at all costs but still save time to cut a rug.
- Suicide Kings – Without King of New York, there would probably be no Suicide Kings, so that movie deserves an extra plug before moving on to number 4. Here, Walken plays a top mafia figure, Carlo Bartolucci who could easily be an older, wiser, (and yes gentler) Frank Cross. Walken spends most of the film duct taped to an office chair by a group of fledgling kidnappers who are looking for a quick ransom payday. Like King of New York, you’ll recognize nearly all of this film’s young stars including Sean Patrick Flanery, Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, Johnny Galecki, and Jeremy Sisto. Walken shines as the mobster who slowly realizes his kidnappers have gotten themselves into something far deeper than they had ever planned.
- Pulp Fiction – I do wish my list had some surprises in store for the top picks, but Walken’s finest performances are far from unexpected. Walken has only one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but it’s top notch. In a segment titled, “The Gold Watch,” Walken plays Vietnam War veteran Captain Koons, who delivers a phenomenal monologue to a young Butch (later played by Bruce Willis). The watch in question is critical to Butch’s story and thanks to Walken’s performance, we understand its significance, importance, and value. If this scene didn’t work, the movie would flounder in the final act. Instead, Pulp Fiction became a masterpiece.
- Catch Me if You Can – Now if you look at the previous seven selections on this list, it is unlikely that you would look at Christopher Walken for the role of a sentimental father. Well thank goodness you’re not Steven Spielberg because his casting of Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. was a touch of brilliance. Walken gives one of his most celebrated performances here as a proud father whose blurred line of ethics compromises his family but also inspires his son to become a con artist.
- Deer Hunter – I am not trying to be cliché by selecting Walken’s Oscar winning role as a Vietnam prisoner of war in 1978’s The Deer Hunter so high on the list. This is a remarkable film with perhaps one of the most electric and horrifying climaxes in all of cinema. Walken’s performance is outstanding and certainly award worthy. And what really grounds this performance is not the chaos towards the end, but the delicate humanity that Walken gives to Nick early in the film. Walken’s performance anchors this film like no other in his filmography.
- True Romance – So I’m sure you read that last line for my Deer Hunter description and thought, “Then why is it not number 1?” The simple fact is that in 1993, Christopher Walken gave a perfect performance hidden in a little film called True Romance. His performance in this film encouraged screenwriter Quentin Tarantino to cast him as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction and made him a favorite of director Tony Scott leading him to cast Walken in two more films. When viewed out of context, this scene from True Romance between Walken and Dennis Hopper lacks the punch that it has when viewed within the film, but it is still masterful.
These 10 selections are but a drop in the bucket of the greatness that is Christopher Walken. To make this list I had to weed out spectacular roles like his wildly over the top performance in Batman Returns, his hysterical turn as Secretary Cleary in Wedding Crashers (his approach to the “Tummysticks” scene is outstanding), his artful song and dance number in Pennies from Heaven, and his voiceover work in Antz ( teamed up once again with Woody Allen). The point is, if Christopher Walken is in the cast, you really can’t go wrong. Here’s to 128 more interesting and odd performances to come!